Controversies in Miss Universe History (1952-2023): From Age Scandals to Crowning Mistakes

Introduction on Controversies in Miss Universe

The Miss Universe pageant, a global spectacle of beauty and grace, has seen its fair share of controversies over the years. From age scandals to mistaken crowning moments, the competition has been marked by moments that captivated the world’s attention and fueled debates. In this blog, we will take a journey through time, exploring some of the most significant controversies in Miss Universe history. From Gladys Zender’s age controversy in 1957 to the dramatic dethronement of Fernanda Pavisic in 2023, these stories shed light on the complexities and challenges faced by contestants on the road to the crown.

1957: Gladys Zender – The Age Controversy

The year was 1957, and Gladys Zender from Peru had just been crowned Miss Universe. However, what should have been a moment of celebration quickly turned into a controversy. It was revealed that Zender was only 17 years old, below the minimum age requirement of 18. This revelation caused an uproar in the media and among the public.

The Miss Universe Organization decided to let her keep the title, as it was explained that, according to a Peruvian custom, a person’s age is counted from the day of conception, not from the day of birth. As a result of this controversy, the age requirement for contestants was changed to a minimum of 18 years by January 1 of the year they competed, a rule that remains in effect today.

Gladys Zender’s crowning was not the only age-related issue in the 1957 pageant. Leona Gage of the United States, initially announced as one of the 15 semi-finalists, was disqualified after it was revealed that she was married and had two children. This revelation not only disqualified her from the competition but also raised questions about the minimum age requirement for Miss USA, which was 21 at the time.

1973: Margarita Moran – The Westernization Criticism

In 1973, Margarita Moran of the Philippines won the Miss Universe crown, but her victory was not without controversy. Some of her fellow countrymen accused her of being too westernized and not representing Filipino culture adequately. Critics claimed that she was not fluent in the national language, Filipino, and did not wear the traditional Filipino dress, the terno, during the pageant. Moran’s Spanish surname and her descent from a former president, Manuel Roxas, also drew criticism.

Another aspect of the controversy centered around accusations that Moran had undergone plastic surgery. Some believed that she had a nose job and other cosmetic procedures to enhance her appearance, leading to unfavorable comparisons with Gloria Diaz, the first Filipina Miss Universe, who was praised for her natural beauty.

Perhaps the most outlandish accusation was the claim that Moran was a CIA agent and part of a conspiracy to promote U.S. interests in the Philippines. Some believed she was a spy for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and that her win was orchestrated by the U.S. government. These rumors also alleged her involvement in the assassination of Senator Benigno Aquino Jr. in 1983.

Margie Moran denied all these allegations and defended her Filipino identity and culture, emphasizing her commitment to using her title to promote peace and development in the Philippines and worldwide.

1980: Shawn Weatherly – The Cheating Accusations

In 1980, Shawn Weatherly from the USA was crowned Miss Universe, but her victory was marred by accusations of cheating from the runner-up, Kim Seelbrede from Australia. Seelbrede claimed that Weatherly had seen the final interview questions in advance and had prepared her answers. She also alleged that Weatherly had bribed the judges with gifts and favors.

Seelbrede specifically claimed to have overheard Weatherly talking to one of the judges, Bob Barker, about the questions and answers. She also accused Weatherly of giving Barker a gold watch and a pair of earrings as a thank-you gift, implying that this influenced the judge’s decision.

Weatherly vehemently denied these allegations, stating that she had won the pageant fairly. She insisted that she had not seen the questions beforehand and had answered them honestly in the moment. She also denied giving any gifts to the judges and claimed that Seelbrede was a sore loser trying to tarnish her reputation.

The Miss Universe Organization defended Weatherly, emphasizing that there was no evidence of wrongdoing on her part. They clarified that the questions for the final interview were randomly selected and kept secret until they were asked, and that the judges maintained impartiality and professionalism.

This controversy did not impede Weatherly’s career. She went on to star in several movies and TV shows, such as “Police Academy 3: Back in Training” and “Baywatch.” She also married Chip Harris, a biotech research company president, and had two children.

Seelbrede, on the other hand, faded from the limelight after the pageant. She married businessman John Nallen and became a yoga instructor and life coach.

1991: Lupita Jones – Plastic Surgery Rumors

In 1991, Lupita Jones from Mexico became the first Mexican woman to win the Miss Universe title. However, her victory was marred by rumors that she had undergone plastic surgery to enhance her appearance. Critics claimed that she had a nose job, a chin implant, and cheek fillers before the competition.

Lupita Jones vehemently denied these allegations, stating that she had only undergone a nose job for medical reasons. She explained that she had a deviated septum that caused breathing problems, and the surgery was not intended to change her facial features. She emphasized her pride in her natural beauty and stated that she did not need any artificial enhancements to represent her country.

Jones also defended herself by pointing out that she was not the only contestant who had undergone cosmetic procedures. She argued that the Miss Universe pageant was not solely about physical beauty but also about personality, intelligence, and charisma. She expressed her commitment to using her title to promote causes such as women’s empowerment, education, and health.

Lupita Jones went on to have a successful career as a model, actress, producer, and author. She became a spokesperson for various causes and remains one of the most influential and respected Mexican women in the world.

1996: Alicia Machado – Body-Shaming and Humiliation

Alicia Machado, a 19-year-old Venezuelan beauty queen, won the Miss Universe title in 1996 during Donald Trump’s ownership of the Miss Universe Organization. However, her reign was marred by body-shaming and humiliation from Trump himself.

After winning the crown, Machado gained some weight, which reportedly angered Trump. He publicly criticized her appearance and called her derogatory names such as “Miss Piggy” and “Miss Housekeeping,” the latter remark being a reference to her Latina heritage. Trump even forced Machado to exercise in front of the media at a New York gym, claiming he wanted to help her lose weight to keep her title.

Machado felt humiliated by these experiences, which took a toll on her self-esteem. Later, she accused Trump of trying to have sex with her and referred to him as a “detestable being” and a “nazi rat.”

Machado became a U.S. citizen in 2016 and supported Hillary Clinton in the presidential election. Clinton mentioned Machado’s story during the first presidential debate to highlight Trump’s misogyny and disrespect for women. In response, Trump denied Machado’s allegations and called her “the worst Miss Universe we ever had.” He also brought up unproven criminal accusations from her past, including involvement in a murder and a drug cartel.

2002: Oxana Fedorova – Dethronement and Controversy

In 2002, Oxana Fedorova from Russia became the first and only Miss Universe to be dethroned. The official reason given by the organization was that she failed to fulfill her duties and obligations as Miss Universe. However, there were rumors that she was pregnant, married, or had a criminal record.

Fedorova denied all these allegations and claimed that she voluntarily gave up the title because she wanted to focus on her law career and personal life. At the time, she was a police officer and a law student, and she felt that the Miss Universe schedule was too demanding and interfered with her studies.

This dethronement caused significant controversy and speculation, with some people believing that Fedorova was unfairly treated by the Miss Universe Organization or by Donald Trump, the owner of the pageant at the time. It also raised questions about the legitimacy of her successor, Justine Pasek of Panama, who assumed the title after Fedorova’s removal.

Fedorova later pursued a successful career in television, music, fashion, and modeling. She became a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and a professor at the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs. She maintained that she did not regret giving up the Miss Universe crown and was proud of her achievements.

2015: Steve Harvey’s Crowning Mistake

The most infamous controversy in Miss Universe history occurred in 2015, during the 64th edition of the pageant. Steve Harvey, the host of the show, mistakenly announced the wrong winner. In a highly publicized blunder, Harvey declared Ariadna Gutierrez from Colombia as Miss Universe, instead of Pia Wurtzbach from the Philippines, the actual winner.

The moment of confusion and embarrassment was captured on live television. Gutierrez was crowned and celebrated, while Wurtzbach stood in the background, visibly shocked. A few minutes later, Steve Harvey realized his mistake, returned to the stage, and apologized to both contestants and the audience. He took full responsibility for the error and asked Gutierrez to give back the crown and sash to Wurtzbach, who was declared the rightful winner.

The incident became a viral sensation, sparking outrage, mockery, and countless memes on social media. It was a moment that left an indelible mark on the Miss Universe history and, despite the apology, had a lasting impact on Steve Harvey’s career as a television host.

2019: Zozibini Tunzi – Embracing Natural Beauty

In 2019, Zozibini Tunzi from South Africa won the Miss Universe crown. However, her victory was marred by racist and sexist comments online. Some individuals criticized her for being a dark-skinned woman with short hair, claiming that she did not conform to conventional beauty standards. They suggested that she should wear a wig or straighten her hair to fit these standards.

Tunzi responded to the online backlash with grace and strength. She expressed pride in her identity and hoped to inspire other girls to embrace their natural beauty. She stood firm against societal norms and stereotypes, emphasizing the importance of breaking free from these constraints.

Zozibini Tunzi used her platform as Miss Universe to raise awareness and fight against gender-based violence, a critical issue in South Africa and worldwide. Her response to online criticism demonstrated her resilience and her dedication to promoting inclusion and self-acceptance.

2021: Harnaaz Sandhu – Trolled & bullied for Weight Gain

In 2021, Harnaaz Sandhu from India was crowned Miss Universe. However, after her victory, she faced a wave of online trolling for her weight gain. Critics targeted her appearance, ridiculing her for being perceived as overweight and losing her charm.

In response to the trolls, Harnaaz Sandhu revealed that she suffered from celiac disease, a digestive disorder triggered by an immune reaction to gluten. Her condition restricted her diet, making it challenging to maintain her weight when traveling to different places.

Sandhu firmly rejected the body-shaming and appealed to society to stop targeting girls for their appearance. She emphasized that women should be allowed to live in a way that feels authentic to them and that their value should not be solely based on their physical appearance.

2023: Fernanda Pavisic – Dethroned for Offensive Comments

The most recent controversy in the Miss Universe pageant occurred in 2023, when Fernanda Pavisic from Bolivia was dethroned by the organization. A viral video showed Pavisic making offensive comments about some of her fellow candidates. She referred to Miss Paraguay, Miss Brazil, and Miss El Salvador as “old ladies” and claimed that Miss Ecuador, Miss Aruba, and Miss Curacao belonged in the “thanks for participating” category. Pavisic also made derogatory remarks about the appearances of Miss Venezuela and Miss Peru.

These comments sparked outrage and led to demands for an apology and Pavisic’s disqualification from both the public and her fellow contestants. The Miss Universe Organization condemned Pavisic’s behavior, emphasizing that it violated the values and principles of the pageant.

On January 14, 2023, the organization officially dethroned Pavisic as Miss Bolivia, citing her actions as unacceptable and disrespectful. Pavisic, however, defended herself by claiming that the video was part of a “social experiment” to expose the double standards in the pageant industry. She insisted that she did not mean to hurt anyone and considered the decision to strip her of her title “absolutely unfair.”

This controversy has ignited debates about professionalism, ethics, and respect within the pageant world, highlighting the challenges and responsibilities contestants face in the modern era.


The Miss Universe pageant has witnessed a series of controversies over the decades, ranging from age-related scandals to mistaken announcements and issues of representation and body shaming. These controversies reflect the complexities and challenges faced by contestants as they navigate the world of beauty pageants. They also provide an opportunity to reflect on the evolving standards of beauty, inclusion, and empowerment.

While the pageant has come a long way in addressing some of these issues, the controversies remind us of the work still needed to ensure that beauty pageants are respectful and inclusive platforms for women from diverse backgrounds. It is essential to celebrate the achievements of contestants while also recognizing their resilience and determination to overcome adversity.

In a world that is continually evolving, the Miss Universe pageant must continue to adapt and respond to the changing expectations of society. The hope is that, moving forward, these events can serve as opportunities for growth, learning, and positive change within the pageant world.

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